LAVAL, Que.,—Jesperi Kotkaniemi faded to the right face-off circle in the offensive zone, cocked his stick and called for a pass while the Montreal Canadiens were on a third-period power play during Friday’s night’s Rookie Showcase game against the Ottawa Senators.
The puck was right in Kotkaniemi’s wheelhouse, and he whiffed on it. Embarrassing? You bet. But when the 18-year-old was asked about it after he and his teammates were handed a 4-0 loss at Place Bell, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s the summer season, I’m not worried about it.”
He certainly didn’t shrink from the fact that that specific play was, in essence, a microcosm of how his first game in a Canadiens uniform went. The intentions were good all night, but the execution was affected by several factors.
For starters, this was Kotkaniemi’s fourth game ever on the small ice.
“The game comes at you a lot faster,” he said.
It certainly does, especially when you’re out there with players you’ve never played with before and when you’re facing off against the type of talented players Ottawa dressed for this game.
High-end Senators prospects Colin White, Alex Formenton, Filip Chlapik and Drake Batherson were dominant at points. And Brady Tkachuk, who was drafted fourth overall in June, was a juggernaut, scoring two goals—one at Kotkaniemi’s expense, and the other while the Finnish kid was serving a hooking penalty that put the Canadiens down 5-on-3 in the second period.
However, Kotkaniemi did show brief glimpses of what compelled the Canadiens to draft him third overall earlier in the summer. There was a clean steal of the puck in the offensive zone in his second shift of the game, a composed breakout he conducted and followed up on in his third, a strong rush in the third period where he danced through Senators defenceman Nicolas Mattinen and created a scoring chance for himself before losing the puck, gaining it back and setting up what looked like a sure goal that ended up being thwarted by the net being knocked off its moorings.
He also won the majority of his faceoffs, saying he was pleased with a summer’s worth of work paying immediate dividends in that department.
But the nerves didn’t allow Kotkaniemi to gain any rhythm throughout the game, and he was the first to admit it.
“Of course that wasn’t the best night tonight,” he said. “I think in all areas—that wasn’t the best me.”
“There are those moments where the game wasn’t going the way I wanted it to be going, and I think I tried too hard to do things,” Kotkaniemi added.
But he wasn’t sweating any of it, and neither was Canadiens coach Joel Bouchard.
“He can play hockey, that’s for sure,” Bouchard said. “Like I said, you don’t get drafted third overall hiding some things that nobody saw. Everyone agrees he’s a good hockey player, but he’s a young kid.”
“What I’m most happy with is that I thought he still fought through it, he didn’t accept it,” Bouchard added. “He acknowledged it… We’ve just gotta let him be, let him play through the process, and he’s going to be fine. But we have to let him be.”
After all, this was just Game 1, and it was a tough one for everyone on the Montreal side.
No one felt the brunt of it more than prospect Jake Evans, who was on a promising third-period rush through the neutral zone before turning into a high hit from Senators defenceman Jonathan Aspirot.
Evans was launched off his feet by the collision, landing firmly on the side of his head and losing consciousness in the process. He was stretchered off the ice and eventually brought to the hospital for further evaluation.
“Of course that wasn’t a clean hit,” said Kotkaniemi. “I think it was pretty dirty. That doesn’t belong in hockey.”
No penalty was assessed on the play.
It was on the very next shift that Kotkaniemi came barrelling into the offensive and knocked the puck loose with a clean hit in the corner, setting up a cycle and some much-needed zone-time for his line. It was late in the game, but it was a clear sign he was getting more comfortable.
“I think I was getting better every period,” he said. “I think it’s going to be better every game.”
Kotkaniemi’s next one will be on Sunday, when the Canadiens close out the Rookie Showcase against the Toronto Maple Leafs.